Nicholson Baker 1957-
American novelist, nonfiction writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Baker's career through 2001.
With the publication of his debut novel, The Mezzanine (1988), Baker earned critical appreciation for imbuing the minute trivialities of a modern lunch break with unseen philosophical and personal significance. In subsequent novels, including Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), and The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), Baker similarly turned his obsessive, microscopic vision to dissections of parenthood, sexual fantasy, and childhood. Baker has also published an idiosyncratic, self-deprecating homage to author John Updike, U and I (1991), for whom Baker harbors a special fascination. During the mid-1990s Baker generated considerable controversy through his condemnation of library policies that dictate the disposal of card catalogs and the wholesale destruction of valuable newspaper collections, as detailed in Double Fold (2001).
Born in Rochester, New York, Baker displayed an early interest in mechanical inventions and the arts, a creative disposition encouraged by his parents, who met each other while attending the Parson's School of Design in New York City. Baker began playing the bassoon as a fourth-grader, and his love for music later became evident in his writing. He spent his first year of college at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he enrolled with the intention of becoming a composer. However, he changed his major to English and transferred to Haverford College, earning his undergraduate degree in 1980. Baker then went to work on Wall Street, first as an oil analyst, then briefly as a stockbroker. After more than a year in New York City, Baker moved to Berkeley, California, to be with Margaret Brentano, whom he married in 1985. While living in Berkeley, he attended a two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California. After successfully publishing several pieces of short fiction in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, Baker moved his family back to the East Coast, where they settled in Boston. He worked at various temporary jobs as a technical writer and word processor, while continuing to develop his fiction writing skills. Baker's literary experiments prompted him to consider that his peculiar approach to storytelling would be better served by abandoning traditional plot structure. This culminated in the publication of his first major work, The Mezzanine, in 1988. Baker continued to build his literary reputation with his novels as well as his collected essays in The Size of Thoughts (1996). During the 1998 Bill Clinton presidential scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, interest in Baker's novel Vox soared when it was revealed that Lewinsky had apparently purchased a copy of the book—which centers around a phone sex relationship—for President Clinton. In a 1994 article published in the New Yorker, titled “Discards,” Baker admonished library administrators for destroying card catalogs, a bibliographic format that Baker views as invaluable accretions of unique, specialized knowledge. Baker has asserted that this knowledge and data is lost in the conversion to electronic databases. Baker subsequently became an ardent advocate for the preservation of deaccessioned library copies of original late nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American newspapers. In 1999 he purchased a segment of a large newspaper collection auctioned off by the British Library, a sale that he was unable to prevent despite his public activism. He subsequently founded the American Newspaper Repository in a New Hampshire warehouse, over which he presides in an effort to save other newspapers of historical value from destruction.
Exhibiting an affinity for minutiae and ponderous disquisition, Baker is noted for transforming otherwise banal human activities into finely wrought descriptions of thought and serious consideration. His technique of extreme magnification and loitering contemplation is described as creating a “clogging” effect in his fiction, thus slowing narrative time to a near standstill while retraining the reader's attention on otherwise overlooked objects and minor events, all presented through Baker's scrupulous authorial subjectivity. The Mezzanine, an essentially plotless, stream-of-consciousness novel, examines in great detail the lunch-hour activities of a young office worker named Howie. His simple lunch—a hot dog, cookie, and milk—and purchase of a new pair of shoelaces are juxtaposed against his reading of a paperback edition of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Baker's digressive novel contains copious footnotes, some of which are several pages long, while following the ruminations of Howie as he contemplates a variety of everyday objects and occurrences, including how paper milk cartons replaced glass milk bottles, the miracle of perforation, and the nature of plastic straws, vending machines, paper towel dispensers, and popcorn poppers. Room Temperature, like The Mezzanine, is structured around an isolated segment of time, in this case a period of twenty minutes during which the protagonist, Mike, feeds his infant daughter her bottle. In this compressed time frame, Mike reflects upon his life, moving randomly through his childhood, college days, and tender moments with his wife and their new baby. Baker's next book, U and I, is a genre-defying departure from his previous novels. Ostensibly a paean to John Updike, whom Baker considers his literary mentor though the two have hardly met, U and I chronicles Baker's sincere—and somewhat pathological—admiration of Updike as well as his peevish envy of the gifted older author. In addition to celebrating Updike's genius and inventing fantasies of meaningful interactions with the author, Baker employs a self-styled form of “memory criticism,” in which he relies on his own—often faulty—memory of Updike's writings, rather than rereading or studying them in preparation. This method is intended to reveal the essence of the author's influence without the distorting effects of scholarship.
Baker's next two novels, Vox and The Fermata, are provocative forays into literary pornography. Vox revolves around an extended phone sex call between two single adults, Jim and Abby, who exchange highly explicit sexual fantasies. As in Baker's earlier novels, time in Vox is compressed, in this case limited to the duration of an actual telephone conversation. The Fermata, presented as the autobiography of a man named Arno Strine, takes as its premise the protagonist's ability to stop time for everyone in the world except himself—the book's title refers to the musical notation for a pause or hold. Rather than use this suspended period, which he calls the “Fold,” to steal money or possessions, Arno uses it to fondle and sexually exploit women or to write pornography and then masturbate. Though adamant that he is harmless—because he refrains from raping the women outright and because he is clean-cut, conscientious, neat, and well educated—Arno is still a chilling voyeur and stalker. Eventually he finds true love and returns to graduate school, relinquishing his supernatural power over time. In The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays, Baker delves deeply into his preoccupation with triviality, including model airplane kits, nail clippers, and a recipe for a chocolate confection. The volume includes two major essays, “Discards,” Baker's previously published exposé on the destruction of library card catalogs, and “Lumber,” a lengthy etymological study of the word “lumber.” Together, these essays reaffirm Baker's belief that the sum of tiny details, often overlooked or ignored by most, is what makes the objects we see and use every day both relevant and meaningful. As Baker suggests, by exploring the connections that form the histories of words, manufacturing processes, or the accumulated knowledge contained in card catalogs, people build understanding and knowledge and thus honor the wisdom of the past. The Everlasting Story of Nory describes one year in the life of a nine-year-old girl whose family has moved from California to a small town in England. In company with Baker's other novels, there is no actual plot but instead the work is formatted as a record of Nory's thoughts and observations during her fourth grade year. Double Fold is a philippic written against the practice in libraries of destroying original documents in order to make them accessible in other ways, such as microfilm or microfiche. A major departure from Baker's usual work, the book describes his personal and costly crusade to save as many bound, original, complete runs of major United States newspapers as possible. Unfortunately, in the name of creating space on library shelves, many have been pulped or sold to dealers who supply pages for personal birthdays, anniversaries, or other events. Baker singles out the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the libraries of Yale University and the University of Chicago for special criticism and traces the funding for the debacle to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford and Mellon foundations. Baker makes a number of recommendations—portions of which are now being implemented in major research libraries in the United States—and calls into question the current trend of creating digital images of print originals, suggesting that this new technology may lead to the wholesale pulping of the actual books and periodicals.
Baker's approach to fiction, particularly in The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, has been critically acclaimed for its originality and linguistic virtuosity. As critics have noted, these novels showcase Baker's trademark style: highly descriptive, focused prose; fierce attention to detail; and delight in the odd, the mundane, and discrete slices of time. However, reviewers have been sharply divided regarding the literary merit of his subsequent work. While many commentators have disapproved of Vox and The Fermata due to their perceived vulgarity, others have found them fascinating, erotic explorations of contemporary, post-AIDS sexual mores. The Fermata has been strongly criticized as chauvinistic and dull at best, and insidiously misogynistic at worst, even leading some reviewers to demand a reevaluation of Baker's previous work. Even more sympathetic critics have conceded that, at three hundred pages, Baker's longest work of fiction, the masturbation fantasies of The Fermata exceed the reader's patience and interest. Baker's literary experiment in The Everlasting Story of Nory has met with mixed reviews. While some found his effort to convey the inner life and experiences of a nine-year-old year girl perceptive and touching, others viewed Baker's project as ill-conceived and tiresomely sentimental. Likewise, Baker's eccentric perspective and unorthodox approach have led to uneven assessments of his essays and nonfiction works. His homage to Updike in U and I has been viewed as an engaging and innovative literary autobiography by some, though others have found Baker's use of Updike as a foil for himself egotistical and disingenuous. The Size of Lumber has been generally praised for its two major essays, despite the suggested inferiority of the collection's slighter pieces. As with his essay “Discards,” Baker's attack on library policy in Double Fold has attracted heated debate among librarians, bibliophiles, and scholars. Though undoubtedly winning sympathy and a measure of publicity for his cause, Baker has been criticized for undermining his case by arguing polemically and ignoring the realities of historical inquiry. His fiction has been favorably compared to that of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Powers, and Steven Millhauser.
The Mezzanine (novel) 1988
Room Temperature (novel) 1990
U and I: A True Story (nonfiction) 1991
Vox (novel) 1992
The Fermata (novel) 1994
The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber (essays) 1996
The Everlasting Story of Nory (novel) 1998
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (nonfiction) 2001
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SOURCE: Harris, Michael. Review of Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker. Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 April 1990): 6.
[In the following review, Harris praises the details and intricate observations recorded in Room Temperature.]
Many look but few observe, as Sherlock Holmes noted to Dr. Watson, and a technical writer named Mike, the narrator of [Room Temperature, a] short second novel by Nicholson Baker (the first was Mezzanine) is definitely one of the observers. Bottle-feeding his six-month-old daughter, nicknamed “the Bug,” on a fall afternoon in Quincy, Mass., in the apartment he shares with his working wife, Patty, he asserts that “with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single 20-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” He then proceeds to prove it.
Without leaving his rocking chair, Mike shuttles back and forth between his past as a precocious kid and college-dorm Romeo and his present as an awed new parent. His mode of travel is the long, intricate sentence, which he views as indispensable for the “careful interpretation and weighing” of “novelties of social and technological life.” His fuel consists of details so fine, and so finely observed (whether of nose-picking or model airplanes, the taste of Bic pens or the mutual sounding-out talk of newlyweds, the clucking noises the Bug makes or...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Odd Couple.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 147 (19 April 1991): 34.
[In the following review, Loose commends the comedy and complex ruminations in U and I, noting its examination of the rivalry between Baker and author John Updike.]
U and I, an idiosyncratic essay on John Updike (the “U” of the title), is a creepy piece of madness, and its author, Nicholson Baker, an enragingly irreverent smart-ass. If this sounds a little severe, I should explain that these comments come from U and I itself. To anticipate criticism is often to disarm it, as Baker knows well (“Who will sort out the self-servingness of self-effacement?”). Yet this is a peculiarly risky book, and some readers may agree with Baker's assessment of himself as an “enthusiastic, slightly crazed, fringe, no-bullshit idiot-savant”.
For well over a decade, Baker has been obsessed with Updike. U and I starts as a kind of elaborate IOU, a tribute to the older author's protean genius. Baker jokingly terms his impressionistic approach a “closed book examination”, for he draws exclusively on his existing knowledge of Updike's work (rather less than half of an extensive output). In Baker's short, hugely enjoyable novels, characters' thoughts spiral out from some small-scale object (a shoelace, a baby's bottle) to form self-portraits of unexpected complexity. In...
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SOURCE: Strawson, Galen. “Writing under the Influence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4594 (19 April 1991): 20-1.
[In the following review of U and I, Strawson objects to Baker's egocentric view of literary interpretation and his erroneous assessment of John Updike.]
U is for Updike, and U and I records Nicholson Baker's admiration for the man and his writing. The psychopathology of his relation to Updike is fairly remarkable, and the book raises some familiar questions about the phenomenon of literary influence. It is written in free fantasia form, and it may be an act of love. But it is also highly ambivalent, and it is astoundingly egocentric. This explains some of its insights as well as its remarkable implausibilities: both are the products of an intense narrowness in the beam of Baker's attention.
Early on in U and I he announces that he has read considerably less than half of Updike's writings, and declares his intention not to read any more until he has finished the book. He proposes a new critical genre which he calls “memory criticism”: he will respond only to what he remembers (or usually misremembers) of Updike without any refreshment. In this way, he believes, he will discover the true trace that Updike has left in him, undistorted by scholarship; for he wants “to represent as accurately as I can what I think of Updike when he comes to mind...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Psoriasis and All.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 3, 9.
[In the following review, Eder discusses U and I, commenting that the work seems to be a plea directed at John Updike for acknowledgment.]
In The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker extracted a whole personal cosmology out of a lunch hour, much of it spent on the escalator returning to his office. In Room Temperature, he harvested another crop of autobiography and musings from an hour spent giving his baby a bottle and putting her to sleep.
Miniaturist of time and experience, one of our most original and gifted new writers, Baker is the supreme literary string-saver. His books, all short and, in the case of this new one [U and I], bound roughly the size of Winnie the Pooh, are friends to trees; ecological microcosms.
The grain of sand he sees the world in is actually a microdot volcano; his angels tussle furiously on their pinhead. Baker writes with appealing charm—sometimes almost too charmingly—but the appeal is clamorous and just short of desperate. See me, he tells the reader; move in with me.
In U and I, he turns the table. This account of his long literary attachment to John Updike—true enough but also, in its strut and dazzle, a fiction—gives us a reader all but literally moving in on a writer. Not just on...
(The entire section is 1370 words.)
SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Sorry It's Late, Will This Do?” Spectator 266, no. 8458 (25 May 1991): 32.
[In the following review, Scammell offers a negative assessment of U and I.]
First I made the usual phone call, to a man I've never met, sitting in a building I've never visited, presiding over the literary half of a magazine I seldom read and whose politics I disapprove of. ‘Anything to review?’, I said. For some perverse reason I like reviewing. It brings in a little money, it flushes out the opposition (those with erroneous attachments), it keeps my name vaguely afloat in the public prints, it allows me to sound off or let fall a quotation (my overnight bag of wisdoms), it keeps my shelves occupied, my right hand busy, and my brain nicely pickled in ink. ‘There's Nicholson Baker’, he said. ‘How do you feel about Nicholson Baker?’ ‘Never heard of him’. ‘He's written two novels. Miniature cult figure. Decidedly literary’. When the jiffy-bag landed I took in the cool cover, author's photo (a James Fenton look-alike, scaled down a little), and a bit of the text [in U and I]. Think Julian Barnes, think Nabokov, think Updike—putative hero of the entire exercise—think navel, think fluff, think reflexive postmodernist, think nano-seconds and Nebraskan highways of pure idiom divorced from anything so vulgar as happenings.
It gave off an odour of sawdust and...
(The entire section is 571 words.)
SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “All the Right Buttons.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 February 1992): 2, 9.
[In the following review, McFadden examines the plot, style, and characters in Vox, noting the clever humor and wordplay.]
Reader, would you pick up the phone? Thank you.
Nicholson Baker's novel Vox is cast in the form of a telephone conversation. I thought that we ought to discuss it the same way, except that our chat will be cheaper. In the book, Jim and Abby meet on an adult party line, VOX2, with a ＄2-per-minute charge.
Their conversation is explicit, often funny and, above all, erotic. Talk about “reach out and touch someone.” It's difficult to discuss the book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, though. Only last week, Queen Victoria was on the cover. Believe me, Vox couldn't be more of a departure, although Abby does have a taste for Victorian pornography. In fact, Baker's creation will remind you of that old Q&A, “Is sex dirty?” “It is if you do it right.”
Beginning with Jim's question, “What are you wearing?,” he and Abby feed each other's fantasies, describe their intimate histories, and finally, reach simultaneous climax. You'd think that the thought of what this call is costing would cool their ardor somewhat (I almost wrote “put a damper on things,” but I'm determined to avoid...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
SOURCE: Kemp, Peter. “Answering Machines.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4640 (6 March 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Kemp criticizes Vox, noting that its intended erotically-charged prose ultimately is more boring than arousing.]
In U and I (1991), Nicholson Baker expresses an especial admiration for John Updike's Self-Consciousness. It is a predictable preference. For self-consciousness, it's increasingly apparent, is Baker's mainstay as a writer. Immersed in circumstances close to his own, the narrators of his first two novels, The Mezzanine (1989) and Room Temperature (1990), characteristically alternate between nerviness and narcissism. That Baker shares this trait is made very clear by U and I, his account of his adulatory-cum-emulatory obsession with Updike. The personality that emanates from its pages is at once self-abasing and self-advertising: Baker doesn't so much back into the limelight as slither himself into it, virtually prostrate.
In fiction and autobiography alike, the Baker persona is regularly exercised by unease. Memories of past gaffes and gaucheries knot him into ecstasies of mortification. Recall of snubs and put-downs from VIPs “understandably revolted” by his squirmy approaches turns him “fuchsia” with embarrassment. Fingering his own goose-pimples, centre stage, is a favourite posture.
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SOURCE: Buchan, James. “It Makes You Go Blind.” Spectator 268, no. 8540 (14 March 1992): 31-2.
[In the following review, Buchan comments on Vox and U and I, acknowledging that Baker is a talented writer, but panning the works for their descriptions of common, everyday events in minute detail.]
Anybody who has travelled on public transportation in the United States will know that many Americans delight in telling their intimate histories: it is part of their notion of Liberty.
Nicholson Baker is an artist of this confession compulsion. His people plump themselves down, pale and atwitch from long study and self-abuse, and quite soon you've heard about their career ambitions, medical problems, reading programmes, upstate New York childhoods, deodorants; how they put on their socks in the morning; their failure to win or even be entered for the National Book Award; their sexual fantasies and anxieties about bad breath; why they didn't go to Harvard; their mothers, wives, babies, bowels. Once there was some irony in this, but the wind seems to have changed: Baker's last book, U and I, was a nervous and half-hearted assault on the writer John Updike; his latest, Vox, is pretentious amateur pornography in an expensive wrapping. Baker remains a maddeningly talented writer.
Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, was published in...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Keep Talking.” London Review of Books (26 March 1992): 18-19.
[In the following review, Loose provides a favorable assessment of Vox and an extended discussion of Baker's previous writings.]
Howard Rheingold, in his recent Virtual Reality, explained the idea of ‘cyber-sex’: how someday we will be able to don sensor suits, plug into the telecommunications network and ‘reach out and touch someone’ in ways entirely unforeseen by Alexander Graham Bell. Speculating about the impact of such artificial erotic experience, Rheingold turned to an already up-and-running technology—to ‘telephone sex’, the adult party lines where you pay to make conversation with a member of the preferred gender. While the UK attempts to shut down such hi-tech services, in America they are already writing academic papers on ‘Sex and Death among the Disembodied’.
And as the gold-embossed cover helpfully explains, Nicholson Baker's new novel Vox is also ‘about Telephone Sex’, about getting turned on by tuning in. Jim and Abby meet on the phone-sex party line ‘2VOX’. By the time the book starts, they have punched in their private code numbers and transferred to the ‘fiber-optical back room’, where conversation is one on one and charged at 95 cents per half minute. Undaunted by these rates or by the strangeness of their encounter, the two...
(The entire section is 3240 words.)
SOURCE: Towers, Robert. “Secret Histories.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 7 (9 April 1992): 35-6.
[In the following excerpt, Towers discusses the dialogue, characters, and storyline in Vox, noting that the work is an amusing read.]
Nicholson Baker is a fiction writer of great charm who may or may not be a novelist. Certainly narrative is the least of his concerns. In The Mezzanine (1988) the “action” begins with the narrator's entrance into the office building where he works and concludes with his ascent of the escalator to the mezzanine floor. The interval between these two events occupies almost as many pages (135) as Laurence Sterne devoted to the digression-filled gap between the conception and the birth of Tristram Shandy. For Baker, like Sterne, the soul, and indeed the body, of the novel consists of digressions—digressions which in Baker's case are augmented by footnotes that can run for as many as four pages at a time of dense type. In The Mezzanine and in his next book, Room Temperature (1990), in which the “plot” consists of the narrator's giving a bottle to his six-month-old daughter, the digressions are largely devoted to an examination, under high magnification, of the trivia of ordinary life: the abrasion-rate of shoelaces; the switch from paper to plastic drinking straws and the disconcerting buoyancy of the latter; the superiority, economic and...
(The entire section is 1265 words.)
SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Tradition and Some Individual Talents.” Hudson Review 45, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 481-90.
[In the following excerpt, Pritchard offers a favorable review of Vox, praising the “finely-tuned conversational sentences” and “inventive words.”]
The most original and ambitious novel published earlier this year was Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach, about which I've had my say in another place. After Stone, the two novels that seemed to me most fully realized and distinct are Nicholson Baker's Vox and Caryl Phillips' Cambridge. Baker is thirty-five, Phillips thirty-four; Baker is a WASP and Phillips is a West Indian educated in Britain. It would be hard to name two novelists who, except for their youth and the fact that they've each published three previous novels, have absolutely nothing in common except a way with writing. Compared to these works, the other novels and stories considered here, intelligent and engaging as to various degrees they all are, feel a bit subsidiary. Not a masterpiece in the lot—which is surprising, since someone in the New York Times Book Review manages to find a new one each week. But the variety and entertaining liveliness of their different styles and subjects reminds us again that contemporary fiction—a lot of it, anyway—is still written for adults and provides satisfactions not to be disdained....
(The entire section is 756 words.)
SOURCE: Chambers, Ross. “Meditation and the Escalator Principle (on Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine).” Modern Fiction Studies 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 765-806.
[In the following essay, Chambers explores the narratological and philosophical significance of open-ended digressions and subjective contemplation in The Mezzanine. Contrasting Baker's novel with Descartes's Meditations, Chambers contends that the discontinuous narrative and trivial private preoccupations of The Mezzanine serve to shift the narrative structure of the novel in favor of “progressive extenuation” and “paradigmatic lingering” rather than closure.]
So essential to the productive economy are the small pleasures of “fugue”—napping in class, calling in sick, walking the dog—that time out is sometimes actually institutionalized and scheduled into the regulated hours of work. We take annual vacations at predetermined dates and go to lunch each day at the appointed hour. To the extent that it tells a story, Nicholson Baker's novel, The Mezzanine, tells the story of such a period of scheduled time out. A young office worker on lunch break leaves his place of employment on the mezzanine, takes the escalator down to the street, walks around a bit, buys some lunch and a pair of shoelaces to replace those that have just broken on him, sits in the sun with a copy of the Meditations of...
(The entire section is 17067 words.)
SOURCE: Trestail, Joanne. “Riding the Pause Control: What Would We Do, Asks Nicholson Baker, If We Could Step in and out of Time?” Chicago Tribune Books (6 February 1994): 3.
[In the following review, Trestail discusses the plot and style of The Fermata, acknowledging that the work is original, funny, and contains descriptions of precise detail.]
One way to talk about Nicholson Baker's books is in terms of their subject matter, and that's easy. The Mezzanine (1986), Baker's heavily footnoted first novel, follows an office worker through his lunch hour as he buys shoelaces, uses the men's room, rides escalators and ponders his stapler. The second, Room Temperature, tracks a father's thoughts as he sits by a window holding his sleeping 6-month-old daughter.
Those books were called novels only because no one could think of a better word for them. Then came the even more uncategorizable U and I, subtitled “A True Story.” In it, Baker relates, seriously, what he thinks and admires about John Updike—having read many, but not all, of his works, and without referring in advance to the texts to verify his recollections of them. It is a study of reading as much as it is of Updike.
Vox attracted some readers who'd never heard of Baker before because it's about phone sex. People hoping for hot stuff must have been perplexed. Vox...
(The entire section is 1357 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Time in a Bottle.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 February 1994): 3, 8.
[In the following review of The Fermata, Eder finds fault in the novel's distasteful preoccupation with voyeurism and sexual exploitation.]
Poor Achilles. He never could catch that tortoise, not because he was slow or the tortoise speedy but because Zeno wouldn't let him. In the famous paradox, the tortoise gets a 10-meter start, say, and by the time Achilles runs the 10 meters, the tortoise has crept 10 centimeters; when Achilles goes the 10 centimeters, the tortoise has done a millimeter, and so on. But the rules are stacked. Achilles doesn't catch up in the first stage, lasting a few seconds, but he would do it in the next stage if it lasted even one second instead of only a few hundredths of one. Zeno arranges tinier and tinier distances in tinier and tinier intervals that rapidly approach stasis.
Nicholson Baker is becoming his own Zeno, and approaching an equivalent stasis. His is a clever, a comic and a genial spirit. In The Mezzanine and Room Temperature he devised an enticing micro-literature. The first—a lunchtime walk in a department store—and the second—a morning spent holding his baby—explored whole worlds of tactile and temporal associations through two kinds of dailiness. The reader suspends belief, and perhaps the author did too; and both...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Clever-Diction.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4742 (18 February 1994): 20.
[In the following review, Broughton provides an unfavorable assessment of The Fermata, faulting the book for its excessive use of puns and euphemisms.]
Arno Strine [in The Fermata] can stop time. Or rather, he can stop time for everyone else while he indulges his passion for interfering with women's clothing, preferably while they are frozen in the act of interfering with themselves. To do this, he has developed elaborate routines in which he stops time to plant dildos in wastepaper bins, or to write raunchy short stories for women to discover by accident. He stops time to sneak through half-open doors. He stops time to hide in laundry baskets. If he is extra careful and neat, and he always is, he can perform his secret “chronanism”, put everything back where he found it, and restart time without anyone being the wiser. It is all very labour-intensive.
The “fermata” is thus the temporal “fold” Arno can enter, more or less at will; and it is while “fermating,” that he writes this, his memoir—his Life and Warped Times. It is just as well he has these secret powers, for Arno Strine's telephone never rings, and he can seldom get up the nerve to ask a woman for a date. Poor Arno: he is a voyeur trapped in his own vice. He is not the kind of man who can...
(The entire section is 757 words.)
SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “Time Must Have a Stop.” Spectator 272, no. 8641 (19 February 1994): 28.
[In the following review, Parks criticizes The Fermata, noting that despite “the hilarity of some of the set pieces” and many astute observations, the book quickly becomes overbearing.]
[The Fermata's] Arnold Strine pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and time stops, the world around him stops. But Arnold is free to move. He can walk around and observe his frozen fellow beings, he can, or could, steal anything he wants, go anywhere he wants, or just catch up on his work before starting the world again with a second adjustment of his glasses. But what does Arnold do with this extraordinary power he has? He masturbates. Or rather, he removes women's clothes and masturbates. He fits vibrators between their legs, starts time to observe their surprise and pleasure, then stops it again and masturbates. He writes bizarre pornographic stories whose typewritten pages they will discover as soon as they are returned to motion, then, having found their addresses from their handbags, insinuates himself into their apartments to watch them masturbate, aroused by his fantasies. So that he can masturbate yet again himself. And all the time, or absence of time, that he is engaged in this, he savours and describes the women who obsess him through a language as lavish, and self-consciously literary...
(The entire section is 838 words.)
SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Larceny.” London Review of Books (24 March 1994): 3, 6.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones examines the plot and structure of The Fermata, faulting the book for its overusage of euphemisms and its adolescent stance towards sex.]
The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker's trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first, novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature. The trivial and quotidian were dignified by the attention given them, and the self-consciously important found no place in the novel's scheme. Towards the end of the book the hero read in his Penguin Marcus Aurelius the gloomy aphorism that human life is no more than sperm and ashes, and felt no sympathy for it. The modest richness of his day refuted this downbeat Roman smugness.
A highly mannered style seems to achieve its effects almost independently of subject matter, but Baker's second book, Room Temperature (perhaps written earlier than The Mezzanine),...
(The entire section is 3045 words.)
SOURCE: Schine, Cathleen. “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 7 (7 April 1994): 14-15.
[In the following review, Schine provides a negative evaluation of The Fermata, denouncing the repetitive use of euphemisms and the tedium associated with the retelling of an act over and over.]
In his new novel [The Fermata], Nicholson Baker turns his full attention to the lonely art, the art of masturbation. The narrator, Arno Strine, possesses a strange gift: he can stop time, halting the world around him. “I first stopped time because I liked my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Dobzhansky, and wanted to see her with fewer clothes on,” he says, but adds that it was not lust that impelled him. Sitting in the back of the room, he simply desired to see more clearly, to examine. His teacher stalls midsentence in front of the blackboard, a piece of chalk in her hand; the class is stilled; Arno strips off his own clothes and stands before her.
In the cottony silence of the idled universe. I undid two buttons. My fingers trembled, of course. Even now, twenty-five years later, my fingers sometimes tremble when I watch them at work undoing a row of a woman's shirt buttons, especially when her shirt is loose, so that once you have finished unbuttoning it no more is revealed to you than when you began, and, as a separate deliberate act, you...
(The entire section is 2720 words.)
SOURCE: Spufford, Francis. “Consuming Passions.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 395 (22 March 1996): 40.
[In the following review, Spufford offers an unfavorable assessment of The Size of Thoughts.]
There was a Victorian naturalist named Frank Buckland who liked to eat what he studied: jaguar steaks, armadillo stew. Nicholson Baker displays something of the same urge, only refined and let loose on the zoo of consumable things. They don't have to be consumer goods, let's be clear. The sensibility that gave the chief character of The Mezzanine “Panasonic three-wheeled vacuum cleaner, greatness of” as his sixth most frequent thought ever, didn't have its drab utility in mind. His pleasure was more avid; it bypassed mere vacuuming.
The point is the discovery of incidental adventures for the gastronome. And so [in The Size of Thoughts] in these exercises in applied epicureanism, it transfers with ease to such challenges to digestion as industrial-process technology. Baker bibs hot metal, sips at the “vintage 1979 Cincinnati Milacron injection press”, a “hulking, squirting” monster, “ministered to by taciturn women who, but for their safety glasses, might have been milkmaids in another life”. A long impassioned defence of card-indices for the New Yorker intends serious advocacy, but refuses to conceal the purity of Baker's response to the...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “A Clippings Job.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4853 (5 April 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Korn offers a generally positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, though criticizes the inclusion of several unworthy pieces in the volume.]
After the entertaining phonoerotic Vox and the deplorable Fermata (which gave a new, literalist interpretation to the cry, “Stop the world, I want to get off”), Nicholson Baker, to the relief of the rest of us, has turned his hand elsewhere. He is a man of enormous lexical talent, a talent recently deployed largely to describe underwear; and so clinging is literary repute or ill-fame that when he published his deeply researched and deeply felt tirade (philippic, jeremiad, dithyramb) on the subject of the deaccession (as in “at yesterday's auto-da-fé, sixteen Jews and three Lutherans were deaccessioned”) of card catalogues as libraries the world over constructed classificatory castles in cyberspace (or cyberspain), readers everywhere paused, decided that they must have misheard, and attributed the piece to the blameless Nicolas Barker, of the British Library and Book Collector, who was obliged to pen a pendant article, which would win him a place in any collection of literary disavowals, along with H. G. Wells grumpily protesting that he is not George Meek and Cruikshank scrawling “Nothing to do...
(The entire section is 1164 words.)
SOURCE: Krusoe, Jim. “Head Case.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 May 1996): 1, 10.
[In the following review, Krusoe praises The Size of Thoughts, complimenting the obsessive detail and evolution of style presented in the essays.]
I suppose that the two things I've always resented most about sports are exactly the two things most people watch them for: that desire to know the final score and the moment (the one when I'm invariably looking somewhere else) that proves to be decisive. That's why I like six-day bike racing. Not only is the end so far off that I can go out to breakfast (several times, in fact) before it arrives, but when I miss a “decisive moment,” I know any sport that has sleep time built into its structure has already absolved me.
Such, in a way, are also the pleasures of reading the essays collected in The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker. Like one or more cruise missiles set not on “search and destroy” but on “peruse,” they resist conclusions; they depend not on an occasional moment of charm for their glory but on whole bushel baskets of perceptions, engaging and quirky each and all. In that way, I suppose, these pieces resemble not so much those juggernauts of reason many of us associate with freshmen writing classes or opinion pieces found in news magazines that drive readers to their knees and make them say uncle or aunt, but poems:...
(The entire section is 1106 words.)
SOURCE: Baker, Nicholas, and David Dodd. “Requiem for the Discarded.” Library Journal 121, no. 9 (15 May 1996): 31-2.
[In the following interview, Baker discusses his controversial 1994 New Yorker essay “Discards,” in which he opposed the destruction of library card catalogs.]
Nicholson Baker's new book taps the author's uncanny ability to capture in prose those minute, seemingly insignificant aspects of our daily lives and thought processes and turn them into inspiring reflections. The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the evolution of punctuation (in which he defends, for example, the collash, which connects a colon and a dash) to the use of the word lumber throughout the history of the English language.
Librarians will enjoy this book immensely, not because they will always agree with the controversial Baker on all points but perhaps because he is the ultimate library patron: demanding, meticulous, often uproariously funny, and full of the kind of surprises that make working a reference desk worthwhile. Still, Baker's thoughts on libraries are bound to set library listservs abuzz: While acknowledging his deep affection and devout support of libraries, he nonetheless reveals his view that the library profession's repudiation of its own past reinforces a perception of its insignificance in the real world....
(The entire section is 1826 words.)
SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Up to the Minutiae.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 8 (20 June 1996): 65-6.
[In the following review, Wood examines the variety of essays in The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of various pieces. Wood praises the humor and passion evident in several essays, focusing on “Discards” and “Lumber” in particular.]
There is much to be said for tiny signs, and we don't have to laugh at the idea of what Erich Heller once called a “profound” semicolon in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Borges's story “The Library of Babel” opens with a pretty deep parenthesis: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. …” Just a pair of small curved marks, but what a difference they make. You could get the meaning here, and even the rhythm, with commas or dashes, but you couldn't get the dizzying sense of the throwaway, of information that almost wasn't given to us, and even now scarcely seems to matter.
Wittgenstein's semicolon looks like this: “The philosopher treats a question; like a disease.” G. E. M. Anscombe translates: “The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness,” which respects the writer's syntax, but doesn't allow the sense of a question itself being like an illness, and...
(The entire section is 3423 words.)
SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 3 (fall 1996): 201.
[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the deeper themes within the collection and Baker's other works such as Vox and The Fermata.]
I remember my first reading of The Mezzanine, I was puzzled by the obsessive attention to detail (especially in the footnotes). Baker used much space for references to Marcus Aurelius and mall design. Why did he consciously cultivate the details? Was he linking consciousness to detail? Was he, in effect, writing a philosophical novel that masquerades as a satire?
In his first collection of essays [The Size of Thoughts,] Baker gives us a wonderful, perverse essay on the linguistic turns of lumber. He endeavors to locate not only its first usage in the OED; he searches concordances to Pope, Browne, and others, so that he can discover whether or not lumber ever suggested thought. And as he travels through the literary past, he finds, among other things, that the mad Kinbote may have been found in Nabokov's reading of Housman's Selected Prose: “Mr. Mary should write a novel. Nay, he may almost be said to have written one; for his notes on book iii (Lucilius' journal to Sicily) are not so...
(The entire section is 319 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 May 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder criticizes The Everlasting Story of Nory, asserting that the book fails in its attempt to depict the perspective and language of a nine-year-old girl.]
As a child late in the last century, Daisy Ashford assumed a grown-up's voice—or her notion of one—to write the romance of Ethel Montacue and her admirer, Mr. Salteena. In its comic misapprehensions of tone, likelihood and spelling, “The Young Visiters,” unearthed years later by J. M. Barrie, became a minor English classic.
Nicholson Baker has reversed the displacement. The Everlasting Story of Nory uses his notion of a child's voice to depict a 9-year-old American girl spending a year with her family in England. Baker's fertile shape-changing and playfulness of language do a lot to suggest a 9-year-old's butterfly speculations. Yet his venture, though sometimes attractive, doesn't really work.
A child dressing up as a grown-up displays not the grown-up but—charmingly in Ashford's case—the child. A grown-up dressing up as a child, on the other hand, runs the great risk of displaying the grown-up.
Some writers Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll and other great inventors of children's worlds—overcome the risk. To create a fictional child, it is not enough to...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
SOURCE: Moore, Caroline. “Sugar and Spice.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 38.
[In the following review, Moore presents a negative assessment of The Everlasting Story of Nory, noting that the work is overly cute and sweet.]
You need a strong stomach to be a critic of modern novels, which collectively give the impression of a world in which children who have not been sexually abused by their near relations are pretty thin on the ground. I thought I had supped full of horrors, but nothing quite prepared me for the stomach-churning qualities of Nicholson Baker's latest novel [The Everlasting Story of Nory]. Professional duty got me through it, but it was a close-run thing.
Perhaps I should have expected something disconcerting. Nicholson Baker's recent fiction has moved away from the ‘exuberantly detailed comedies of ordinary life’ billed by the blurb to exuberantly detailed fantasies about masturbation. This book, however, finds a rather ingeniously novel way to surprise and repel the reader, which is, as we all know, the function of art. The Everlasting Story of Nory is disgustingly, toe-curlingly twee.
The eponymous and remarkably under-abused heroine, Nory, is
a nine-year-old girl from America with straight brown bangs and brown eyes. She was interested in dentistry or being a paper engineer...
(The entire section is 704 words.)
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Giraffes, Children, and Stories.” Christian Science Monitor (25 June 1998): B7, B11.
[In the following review, Charles praises The Everlasting Story of Nory, lauding its ability to evoke the innocent, simple, and “miraculous” world of childhood.]
My six-year-old daughter recently asked me about the giraffe in our house.
“What giraffe?” I asked.
“That giraffe you and Mom felt coming down the stairs.”
“That was a draft, some cold air, you know, a breeze.”
She nodded skeptically, as though she'd stumbled upon an exotic smuggling ring. For me, her question was a reminder of the miraculous, perplexing world in which children live.
Nicholson Baker has written a most beguiling novel about that world. The Everlasting Story of Nory perfectly captures the ordinary life of a kind, creative nine-year-old girl. In the cacophony of novels, memoirs, and talk shows about the harrowing hazards many children face, Nory's story is a charming reminder of the life children need and deserve.
Nicholson presents Nory with a degree of gentle irony that makes this novel sweet, but never saccharin. The book's sustained comedy stems from Nory's attempts to make sense of her year in England, where her father is taking a sabbatical to “write books that...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
SOURCE: Lorberer, Eric. Review of The Everlasting Story of Nory, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 242-43.
[In the following review, Lorberer applauds The Everlasting Story of Nory for its vivid portrayal of the thoughts and internal feelings of Nory, its nine-year-old protagonist.]
Nicholson Baker, well-known for his phone-sex novel Vox and his voyeuristic fantasy The Fermata, here attempts what in some ways might be his most risky book yet. The Everlasting Story of Nory depicts a year in the life of a nine-year-old American girl attending school in England; its quiet, pastoral tone is more evocative of children's authors such as Robert McCloskey (whose Make Way for Ducklings is cited early on) than of the famed Anonymous. Yet Nory rigorously avoids the cliches of both the innocent childhood remembrance and the darker coming-of-age story, instead chronicling its young protagonist's chaotic thoughts and internal world at the age she is now. This is Baker's forte, of course; as in all his novels, which stretch and pull a single moment of time like taffy. Nory offers an absurdly detailed glimpse of the present, thus showing it to be rich and strange in its very ordinariness.
Baker pulls this off not through plot (of which there is virtually none here) but through his attention to...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur. “A Columbus of the Near-at-Hand.” In Understanding Nicholson Baker, pp. 1-14. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Saltzman provides an overview of Baker's life, writings, literary style and thematic concerns, and critical reception.]
Nicholson Baker has established himself as contemporary fiction's principal detective and dissector of epics that await the reader at close range. Thanks to Baker's extraordinary attention to ordinary objects and processes, restroom paper towels and computer paper perforations have been accorded the same descriptive indulgence as Achilles' shield; tying shoes and writing with a ballpoint pen on a rubber spatula rise to high drama; the fates of popcorn poppers and peanut butter jars are crucial planks in a private political platform, quietly alive with social implications. With unrivaled patience and meticulousness, Baker tweezes poetry out of a seemingly prosaic environment, which brims for him with compacted extravagance, ingrown gorgeousness. As one reviewer puts it, “Baker doesn't just count the angels on the head of a pin; he does long division with the feathers in their wing tips.”1 In The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990) in particular, a studied intimacy presides; happily banished to contemplation, Baker offers the radiant residue of extended meditation. He...
(The entire section is 3854 words.)
SOURCE: Kniffel, Leonard. “Nicholson Baker Returns in Prose and Prank.” American Libraries 32, no. 4 (April 2001): 28-9.
[In the following essay, Kniffel discusses Double Fold and Baker's efforts to preserve historical newspaper collections from destruction.]
Author and activist Nicholson Baker has again taken aim at library preservation practices—twice. Once for real, in a new book, and once as the butt of a hoax perpetrated by someone he calls “a misguided supporter.”
Baker's new book, Double Fold, published this month by Random House, is a scathing assessment of the state of newspaper and book preservation. He is incensed by libraries' rush to embrace space-saving technology at the expense of unique print originals and particularly by the wanton discarding of newspapers after they have been microfilmed, based on an exaggeration of their fragility.
“Libraries that receive public money should as a condition of funding be required to publish monthly lists of discards on their websites, so that the public has some way of determining which of them are acting responsibly on behalf of their collections,” says the author, whose book brings together his findings since 1993, when he began researching an article that was published in The New Yorker in April 1994, criticizing the destruction of library card catalogs after the installation of...
(The entire section is 877 words.)
SOURCE: Darnton, Robert. “The Great Book Massacre.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 7 (26 April 2001): 16-19.
[In the following review, Darnton offers a generally favorable assessment of Double Fold, though finds shortcomings in Baker's rhetorical exaggerations and his view of historical sources.]
When journalists discuss their craft, they invoke contradictory clichés: “Today's newspaper is the first draft of history,” and “Nothing is more dead than yesterday's newspaper.” Both in a way are true. News feeds history with facts, yet most of it is forgotten. Suppose newspapers disappeared from libraries: Would history vanish from the collective memory? That is the disaster that Nicholson Baker denounces in his latest book [Double Fold], a J'accuse pointed at the library profession.
Librarians have purged their shelves of newspapers, he argues, because they are driven by a misguided obsession with saving space. And they have deluded themselves into believing that nothing has been lost, because they have replaced the papers with microfilm. The microfilm, however, is inadequate, incomplete, faulty, and frequently illegible. Worse, it was never needed in the first place, because contrary to another common delusion, the papers were not disintegrating on the shelves. Despite their chemistry—acids working on wood pulp in paper...
(The entire section is 6156 words.)
SOURCE: Star, Alexander. “The Paper Pusher.” New Republic (28 May 2001): 38-41.
[In the following review, Star compliments Double Fold, but finds flaws in Baker's narrow defense of print artifacts and his failure to consider content value as a criterion for preservation.]
In the opening pages of The Mezzanine, his first novel, Nicholson Baker speculates that the world changed suddenly sometime around 1970. He is referring to the unfortunate moment when “all the major straw vendors switched from paper to plastic straws, and we entered that uncomfortable era of the floating straw.” How did this come about? Presumably the engineers had supposed that because a plastic straw weighed more than a paper straw, it, too, would rest on the bottom of a can. But the engineers were wrong. They had forgotten that paper straws were more porous than their plastic cousins, and therefore “soaked up a little of the Coke as ballast.” As a result of this miscalculation, the “quality of life, through nobody's fault, went down an eighth of a notch, until just last year, I think, when one day I noticed that a plastic straw, made of some subtler polymer, with a colored stripe in it, stood anchored to the bottom of my can!”
This is Nicholson Baker in a nutshell: a squinting attention to the tiniest specifications of everyday life; a half-satirical, half-maniacal expression of...
(The entire section is 3747 words.)
SOURCE: Baker, Nicholson, and Andrew Richard Albanese. “Double-Edged: Is Nicholson Baker a Friend of Libraries?” Library Journal 126, no. 10 (1 June 2001): 103-04.
[In the following interview, Baker discusses his arguments for book and newspaper preservation, as put forth in Double Fold, and the controversy among librarians in response to his condemnation of library policies that promote the destruction of print collections.]
Since its publication in April 2001, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper has generated a hailstorm of controversy in the library community. It is somewhat ironic then that Baker, sitting in a New Hampshire warehouse among the more than 60 pallets of newspapers he recently rescued from destruction at the hands of the British Library, says he is beginning to feel a little like a librarian.
In spite of his damaging indictment that librarians invented a crisis of brittle paper to justify the destruction of huge numbers of rare books and newspapers, it is evident in speaking with Baker that he does indeed harbor a great deal of respect for the work of librarians. Baker will bring his argument directly to the library community at this year's ALA meeting in San Francisco, addressing librarians in a speech that is certain to generate a heated response. What can librarians expect to hear there? LJ caught up with the...
(The entire section is 1807 words.)
Birkerts, Sven. “Details.” New York Times Book Review (14 April 1996): 12.
Birkerts praises The Size of Thoughts, extolling Baker's writing abilities, wit, and verbal skill.
Cavanaugh, Tim. “Paper Tigers.” Reason 33, no. 4 (August-September 2001): 78-9.
Cavanaugh offers a negative assessment of Double Fold.
Fialkoff, Francine. “Baker's Book Is Half-Baked.” Library Journal (15 May 2001): 102.
Fialkoff, the editor of Library Journal, disagrees with Baker's arguments against the digitization of newspapers and periodicals in Double Fold, and proposes other methods for archiving materials.
Garner, Dwight. “The Collector.” New York Times Book Review (15 April 2001): 9.
Garner provides discussion of Double Fold and Baker's effort to preserve discarded newspaper collections, including his founding of the American Newspaper Repository.
Gates, David. “Paper Chase.” New York Times Book Review (15 April 2001): 8.
Gates summarizes many of the arguments presented in Double Fold, agreeing with Baker's positions and his alternative solutions to the digitization and subsequent destruction of original material in library collections.
(The entire section is 496 words.)